How has your first book changed your life?
88. Alex Lemon
How did your manuscript happen to be picked up by Tin House?
I was the poetry scholar at the Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop in 2005. It was an amazing time--great readings, incredible classes (I was in a poetry workshop with D.A. Powell, and will forever be grateful to him for his teaching), and I was thrilled to meet so many wonderful writers. Among these folks, I met Brenda Shaughnessey, the poetry editor of Tin House magazine. She asked if I'd submit some poems for the magazine and she also asked if I was working on a manuscript. A number of months after the workshop she emailed to ask some questions she had about the poems she was accepting for the magazine. In the same flurry of correspondence she asked what was going on with Mosquito, and said that Tin House was interested in publishing it. This came as a heart-attack of a surprise because when I'd sent it to her I was under the impression that she was going to help me with it--give me feedback, comments, etc. This was a Friday--she called me back on Monday (after one of the longest weekends of my life) and told me Tin House wanted to publish Mosquito. I was teaching creative writing in room 011 of Old Main of Macalester College when she called.
What do you remember about the day when you saw your finished book for the first time?
I was at Tin House's summer workshop the following year--July '06--because they'd asked me to come read. I was outside of the Reed College dining commons, talking to friends I'd met the year before, when Meg Storey--now a great friend, and the person I had been working day-to-day with on edits (she put up with so much craziness from me. I was incredibly scared, nervous, whatever--I thought everything I was doing was terrible)--brought me a copy that had arrived at the actual Tin House in Portland. I felt happy and sick and loved and distraught all at the same time. None of it seemed real.
Before that day, did you imagine your life would change with its arrival?
I'm not sure, really. Even after all of the production started happening, I thought something would happen. I didn't think I'd ever see the day.
Sure, life's been different, but I'm not sure about how much it has to do with Mosquito. I continued teaching at Macalester College. I took a medical leave. I still lived in the Twin Cities. My writing life changed substantially, though--I worked harder on what I was doing. Mosquito's publication made me a better reader; I found a new level of engagement with my work. I was invigorated by just thinking about poems in ways that I hadn't before. The process of editing Mosquito itself gave me a deeper understanding of my writing.
Were you involved in designing the cover?
Kind of. I was sent a number of cover designs and I listed my top three, but I think Laura Shaw did an amazing job. I was incredibly lucky to have people who cared so much working on my book. I didn't feel like I had a tremendous amount of input--in fact, I kind of freaked out when I found out how small it was going to be--but once again, the decisions the folks at Tin House made ended up being perfect. I would have ruined it. It would have had a paper bag cover, and after flipping to the cover page it'd ignite in your hands.
Were there things you thought would happen that didn't? Surprises?
I was surprised when people contacted me after reading it.
What have you been doing to promote the book and what are those experiences like for you?
I've done as much as I've been able to. I had to cancel a number of things I'd planned on doing because of the medical leave I took from Macalester the fall after Mosquito came out, but other than that I've tried to say yes to whatever's been asked. I've read all over--from NYC to L.A., been on the radio, done interviews, responded to classes who were reading it and had questions for me.
I like doing all of it and I would do more if there were more time, but it can be pretty exhausting, emotionally, sometimes. I like to think it would be different--that people at readings would be asking me out to have a good time, or telling me stories about their favorite adventures or some such thing--but because of the subject matter I end up spending a lot of time talking to people about living with or through illness. I don't think for a minute this is always a depressing thing--I often feel more present after talking to these people, but I'd be lying if I said it doesn't make me sad, or send me spinning off into a dark place sometimes. When I say "the subject matter" I'm talking about the poems that deal with trauma, sickness, and recovery--the poems that have to do with my brain surgery and the aftermath.
Can you tell me more about what happened to you?
I had brain surgery in the fall of 1999 after three brain bleeds (strokes, or stroke-like events, depending on which doctor you ask). The first happened when I was 18, and the following two happened when I was 21. All of them occurred as a result of a vascular malformation I have in the pons of my brainstem.
Was the medical leave from teaching that you took after the book was published connected that?
It was. I went on medical leave the fall of 2006 because I started losing my sight the spring of 2006. My vision was getting so bad, I was having a hard time reading my students' papers or making out much of anything past a few feet in front of me. The symptoms I was having--nystagmus and double vision, general clumsiness--were the same ones I've had since I reached a baseline after I recovered from surgery, but they are also the symptoms that were/are a sign of another stroke, and I'll always have a chance of it happening again.
Until I was cleared by MRIs and a neurosurgeon, I was worried that I was having brain hemorrhages again. The neurosurgeon referred me to a neuro-ophthalmologist who thought the worsening symptoms were from a changing sensitivity to my baseline. So, what I was left with after I'd recovered from the surgery had suddenly--or over the course of a couple of weeks--gotten substantially worse.
Working with a new rehab therapist and the same doctor, I decided to begin medication and start working toward seeing better. The only way this was possible was to occlude one of my eyes, and begin taking an anti-seizure drug to try to dampen the bouncing in my eyes. In the same visits, the question arose of whether or not I might have neurofibromatosis, a genetic disease that causes tumor growth. I took the fall off to begin working on all of these issues.
How are you doing now?
I think I'm doing great. I wore an eye patch for the better half of the semester, and tinkered with the dose of medication. I was taking the incorrect amount for a long while: first too little, and then far too much. Both of which left me unable to do most of everything. Eventually I got it down. I got crazy-big enlargers (special medical ones), and a globe enlarger that I've taped a kind of horizon line on, and for the last half year or so I've been wearing a black contact lens that occludes one of my eyes so I don't have to wear the eye patch.
I'm still pretty clumsy, and I can't see so well, but all in all I feel fortunate to have had this happen when I was young-ish--if it hadn't, there's no way I'd be as healthy as I am/feel now. I did get beach sand in the contact the other day. That's about as terrible as I've been of late. Thanks for asking.
What advice do you wish someone had given you before your book came out? Or, what was the best advice you got?
A friend told me to give the book a life--and I've tried, and continue to try and do just that.
I think it freed me to do what I've wanted to do, actually. Mosquito was mainly compromised of my MFA thesis (U of Minnesota, whoop, whoop), and the poems in it were the poems I had to write first. They had to come out of me first to clear the way, and build a fertile foundation for the poems I hope to write down the line.
I hope it hasn't.
Nope. I'm overjoyed with my life--I have more friends than I deserve, and feel fortunate to be surrounded by so many rocking and genius people--both in and out of the poetry world.
Sure. I have a tremendous amount of faith in the transformative power of language--the scale of that change might be debated--but the alchemical nature of words can produce monstrous and wonderful things.
2 poems from Mosquito by Alex Lemon:
You want evidence of the street
I am midnight banging against house
An ocean of burning diamonds
let me sleep hoarse-throated in the desert
Kick my ribs, tug my hair.
Slap me, I'll be any kind of sinner.
Someone is hanging from an ice pick
. . .
. . .